Monday, March 31, 2008

Military History and Warfare: World War I: Colonel Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck: Germany’s colonial guerrilla warrior?

On 2nd March 1919 the Germans who had returned from East Africa marched through the Brandenburg gate to be greeted by members of Germany’s new post war government. A victory parade was held in their honour and their commander, Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck was awarded the ‘pour le merite’. Unlike the rest of the German army, von Lettow and his ‘Schutztruppen’ had avoided defeat and only surrendered when news of the armistice finally arrived from Europe on the 25th November 1918. When the First World War broke out in 1914, the German army in East Africa numbered only 218 Europeans and 2,542 askaris, divided into fourteen field companies. Cut off from Germany, von Lettow was almost entirely reliant on what he could get from within the colony. The German commander never had more than 15,000 soldiers whereas the Allies eventually fielded a force of 160,000 men in an effort to pin down and destroy the German presence in East Africa. Beyond his own country, von Lettow came to be venerated as a master of guerrilla warfare. The origins of this interpretation lie with the South Africans who had fought him in 1916. The Boers among them, sensitive to their own performance in the Boer war fifteen years earlier, were happy to accept the notion that they had influenced von Lettow’s strategic outlook. As a result of these ideas as well as the protracted length of the campaign, East Africa has received more attention than the other sub-Saharan theatres of World War I.



Von Lettow surveying British troop movements on the Kilomanjaro front, March 1916.


From the outset, the British had the military advantage with control of the sea and larger military forces. However, they received a severe blow when a British and Indian force failed to capture the port of Tanga in November 1914. There was serious fighting in the Kilomanjaro region and German flying columns damaged the Uganda railway. However, by early 1916, the Germans had been forced to retreat south towards the central railway line. Von Lettow managed to stage a tactical retreat into southern Tanganyika, always one step ahead of Allied attempts to trap his forces. Although outright victory was never a possibility for the dwindling German forces, von Lettow hoped to force the British to commit disproportionate forces to pursue him and thereby keep those forces away from other fronts in the war.

Despite how he is remembered, arguably von Lettow was never really a practitioner of guerrilla warfare in mindset nor tactics. Had he truly adopted the tactics of the guerrilla, considerably more could have been achieved in disrupting the Allied colonies in East Africa. From the outset of war, von Lettow’s own operational priorities remained those of the classic German military doctrine in which he had been trained. Professor Hew Strachan argues that von Lettow’s memoirs contain no theory relevant to the guerrilla. Instead they illustrate his desire for ‘envelopment, encirclement and the decisive battle’. His own instinct was to give battle rather than shy away from it. This he did on several occasions. However, it should be remembered that fighting for fighting’s sake both depleted his ammunition and endangered the lives of the irreplaceable European officer and non-commissioned officers that formed the core of von Lettow’s army.

Von Lettow himself was critical of those subordinate commanders who did exercise a form of guerrilla warfare. In January 1917, Max Wintgens led his column across the Allied lines of communications, and up to the central railway near Tabora. Wintgens sick with typhus, surrendered on 21 May, but Heinrich Naumann, his successor, held out until 2nd September. This was a classic guerrilla operation. Naumann’s men marched 3,200km between February and September. They had operated behind Allied line and drawn up to 6000 men away from the main battle. Von Lettow criticised the operation for undermining the principle of concentration of forces. Such independence smacked of insubordination rather than initiative.

It was only with von Lettow’s entry into Portuguese territory that his style of operations began to conform with that that of a guerrilla leader. His supply position had forced him onto the defensive. He fought to feed his troops and subsequently, the war in East Africa became one of movement as the Germans searched for fresh sources of supply with the British in hot pursuit. At Ngomano on 25th November 1917, the Germans surprised 1,200 Portuguese troops and captured 600 rifles and 250,000 rounds of ammunition. Three more forts were taken in December, and the Schutztruppen were able to keep themselves supplied. Von-Lettow and his column were successfully able to exploit the weakness of Portugal’s colonial administration and poor military organisation.

Nevertheless, this incursion into Portuguese territory could be viewed as a lost opportunity to wage a much larger war against the Allies than von Lettow and his forces could have waged on their own with the limited resources available. Portugal’s major concern was with the internal order of its colony. The northern regions had never properly been pacified, and in the south the Makombe in Zambezia rose in revolt in March 1917. The Portuguese turned Ngoni auxiliaries onto the Makombe and suppressed the rising by the end of 1917. The Portuguese condoned inter-tribal fighting and slavery as a means to retain control of the region. However, von Lettow did not fan these flames for his own ends. Whilst marching through the area he paid for goods with worthless paper currency and German doctors attended to the sick. But he continued to regard Africa and Africans as neutral bystanders in a wider conflict.

Von Lettow justified his entire campaign in terms of the number of Entente soldiers committed to the East Africa theatre. Almost 160,000 British and Belgian troops, including naval forces were engaged during the course of the war against the Schutztruppen. However, few of these if any would have been available for the western front. British policy was that by and large, Africans should take the burden for fighting the land campaign in the African colonies. Von Lettow’s real diversionary achievement was to be measured in the maritime, rather than land effects. In 1917/18, with U-boat warfare at its height, the length of the voyage round the Cape to Dar es Salaam tied up merchant vessels on long-haul voyages where they were desperately needed elsewhere. The need for more ships, rather than to defeat von Lettow, underpinned British war policy against the remaining the remaining German African colonies.

When von Lettow and his men finally surrendered at Abercorn at the end of November 1918, he still had a fighting force of 155 Europeans and 1,156 African askaris armed with thirty-seven machine guns, 1,071 British and Portuguese rifles and 208,000 rounds. The real restraint on what could have been achieved by those forces lay not in the possible efforts of the Allies, but in von Lettow’s own reluctance to embrace a more revolutionary strategy. Had von Lettow considered using local political difficulties to his advantage than perhaps the war in East Africa might have been a much larger headache for the Allies. Instead it turned into a case of chasing the Germans across the continent after the German colony itself was overrun in November 1917. Nonetheless, Von Lettow was without doubt an officer of resource and determination. His Schutztruppen were the embodiment of the German army’s own notion of invincibility, leadership and determination against all the odds. However, he remained an old-school soldier trained in the manner of the German General staff. His attitude and tactics clearly demonstrate that von Lettow was no guerrilla fighter.


Hew Strachan, The First World War’ (London, 2003)

Hew Strachan, The First World War in Africa (Oxford, 2004)

Edward Paige, Tip and Run’ (London, 2007)

Michael S. Neiberg, Fighting the Great War: A Global history (Harvard, 2006)

David Killingray, ‘The War in Africa’ in the Oxford Illustrated History of the First World War ed. Hew Strachan (Oxford, 1998)

1 comment:

withnail67 said...

The author of 'Tip and Run' is Edward Paice - not Paige.